So it begins. A Christian preschool in Florida that receives much of its funding from the state government has announced it will close its doors in May, due to concerns that government regulations could violate the school’s independence and religious freedom. The government could even require bathroom accommodations for transgender preschoolers.
“There has always been some concern among a lot of people with taking any kind of government dollars as to whether or not the people could have a say in what you teach, your curriculum, whether or not it is a separation of church and state issue,” Barbara Deem, director of Pensacola’s Gateway Christian School, told The Christian Post. The school, which is an outreach ministry of the Gateway Church of Christ in Pensacola, will shut down after serving the local community for over 40 years.
Deem explained that the church elders reportedly made the decision that the school’s involvement in the state-funded Voluntary pre-kindergarten (VPK) subsidy program could become a “liability” to the church. In the program, 4-year-olds who qualify can receive state funding to offset the costs of pre-kindergarten classes.
The preschool has participated in the VPK program since its inception in 2005. Deem said the program pays for about 60 percent of the preschool’s enrollment, at the cost of roughly $2,300 per 4-year-old child per year. Parents pay for the other 40 percent of children, ages 1 to 3.
While the preschool is closing because of state-church concerns, Deem explained that it already had a built-in protection from intrusive regulations. “We have time throughout the day that the state is not paying for, in order to alleviate any possibility of being challenged on teaching Christian values on the government dollar,” she said.
Nevertheless, the elders became increasingly concerned about the possibility that the government would one day force the preschool to alter its curriculum or to make changes that conflict with Christian teachings. According to Deem, elders have been “investigating other churches in other states that have been threatened with political changes.”
Interestingly, the church’s elders were concerned about the “separation of church and state.” Deem explained that they asked, “Can your status as an independent entity be challenged because you may not want to go with what is politically correct?”
“They cite things such as installing transgender bathrooms or teaching values that are opposed to what the church actually stands for and the values that each independent church holds high,” Deem said.
Nevertheless, she added, “We have not had any threats. We have not had anyone come and challenge these issues. I have had this position for nine years and I have never had anyone come and question us about our teachings. If anything it is quite the opposite. They are happy that their children are getting some Christian education at an early age.”
Rather, “this was a decision of the leadership in effort to protect the congregation as a whole against any potential threat.”
Approximately 90 children attend the preschool, many of them from families who are not members of the Gateway Church of Christ. The school employs about a dozen staff members. After the preschool closes in May, the staff will have to find new jobs and the families new opportunities for their children.
Deem reported that she had been “a part of” the discussions leading up to the decision to close the school. She added that she does not support the decision “for a number of personal reasons, but to say that it was a complete shock, no it wasn’t.”
Nevertheless, the director emphasized the school’s long record of success. “We have multiple generations that have come through this school — many successful people such as doctors and lawyers and such who have started here,” Deem said. “We are blessed and we feel like God’s hand has been over this. We are sad about it but we do understand that sometimes doors close in order for others to open. We are just trying to do the right thing and end with honor.”
This preschool may be one of the first to close in these troubled times, but it might not be the last. Religious freedom is under attack in this country, primarily by the LGBT movement. Just last month, the group Equality Ohio announced plans to target churches if they refuse to offer their property to be used in a homosexual wedding.
Also in February, Washington state’s Supreme Court ruled against the Christian florist Barronelle Stutzman, who refused to serve a homosexual wedding, despite frequently selling flowers to the gay man involved. Similarly, Oregon bakers Aaron and Melissa Klein were fined more than their life savings for doing the same thing, despite selling baked goods to the lesbian woman involved. The woman alleged that she felt “mentally raped” by their refusal to bake her wedding cake.
In a recent poll, a full 61 percent of Americans rejected a small business’ right to “refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people, if doing so violates their religious beliefs.” This question was arguably too broad, but a more specific poll among LGBTI Australians found widespread opposition to almost any protections against forced involvement in a same-sex wedding.
Just this past week, Australian bars boycotted a brewery over a video showing a debate about gay marriage. The brewery promptly dropped it’s Bible Society beer, declared its position in favor of legalizing gay marriage, and called the video offensive.
The Hawaii Senate recently passed a law that would force a church to refer women to abortion clinics. Last year, the state of Massachusetts forced transgender accommodations rules on churches — and while that guidance was ultimately reversed, this move set a dangerous precedent.
In light of these events, the Gateway Church of Christ elders may have made the right decision. No matter how strongly President Donald Trump backs religious freedom, the cultural trends are terrifying. May God bless America, and preserve the freedom of the church.